Phoenix doesn't sound like the funniest play. The show, which is now at Cherry Lane Theatre, opens with a nurse named Sue (Julia Stiles) confronting a laid-back dude named James (James Wirt) just a few weeks after their one-night stand. Turns out she's pregnant---whoops---and she's not planning to keep the baby. And oh yeah, after this, she and James are never going to see each other again.
To repeat: Not an obvious laugh riot. But playwright Scott Organ injects his script with so many startling turns---and gives both characters such vivid personalities---that their odd relationship is as charming and amusing as it is bittersweet and sincere.
It's a very particular play, for instance, that can deliver both tense uncertainty and awkward comedy while two almost-strangers sit in the lobby of an abortion clinic, discussing the fate of their unborn child.
The audience response to these moments has certainly surprised Wirt. "There are so many laughs in so many random places, especially in the abortion clinic [scene]," he says. "I'm trying to get the scene driving, and then we hold for a laugh at Julia saying something. We never knew that line was funny, and now we can incorporate that."
It's important, though, that the production never strays too far toward humor or pathos. The balance is key, especially in the way Wirt plays his character. When we meet James, he's a puppyish, open-hearted guy who would understandably attract a high-strung person like Sue. He's carrying some heavy things from his past, though, and it's up to the actor to make sure he honors all those elements. "He's a free spirit and extremely enthusiastic, and at first I didn't want to be so playful or do too much," Wirt says. "But finding his earnestness was also a bit of a challenge. I had to be careful that he wasn't coming across as cocky."
Both actors' choices are especially noticeable in Phoenix. They're not only the only cast members, but also are on stage for the entire 90-minute show. "There's not a lot of stage business in this play," Wirt says. "There are no stage directions. When you don't have that and you only have two people, it's like you're on a dance floor. It means everything has to be tightly choreographed. It's just the two of you out there, and if somebody falls, then the whole thing goes down. It's exciting. Like jumping out of a plane or something."
So how does he handle the responsibility of carrying so much of a production? "It's trusting that you can just be there," Wirt says. "You might want to do more, but you have to trust that you're interesting enough without a big dance or song or something. Just really being there is interesting enough, and you just have to allow it to happen."
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor
Photo by Harry Fellows